Twilight of American Idol

This is the first time I have, in my Olympian conceit, deigned to descend to the level of mere mortals to watch most of a season of American Idol, today’s ultra-glitzy counterpart to Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. I usually sneer at popular entertainments, partly because I want to maintain a sense of self-important superiority (and who am I kidding?), partly because I heed Heidegger’s warning: here I am a grand total of fifty-two years old, and even if that proves to be only half my life span, it ain’t much. I have to budget my life as wisely as I can. I’m not that great on the money thing, so maybe I can make good use of my time. I have a lot of books to read, and a good number to write as well. I often think of what the silver-haired King Arthur says to Gwenivere in the film Excalibur, that he sometimes dreams of a day “in the twilight of our lives” when “I owe no more to the future, can be just a man.” The only difference my life will make “ten minutes after I’m dead” (Jesus, in Superstar) is if I can even slightly influence my chosen field of study, biblical criticism, so I keep writing whenever I can..

But even more important than that, even if no one ever remembers it, is spending time with my beloved wife and daughters. And these days I enjoy joining them to watch the show I used to ignorantly deride as “American Idiot.” Here are some reactions.

First, it is not unpleasant to see talented people perform music, even though I don’t much care who wins, and I would certainly never waste a nickel to phone in a vote. What I like best is when the contestants have finished singing a number and are brought before the triumvirate of Randy (a record producer), Paula (a pop singer), and Simon (another producer). It is like souls on judgment day being dragged before the divine throne to answer for the works done in the body, whether good or evil. Paula is a goddess of grace. She never heard a performance she didn’t like, or couldn’t pretend to. Randy is reluctantly objective. Simon pulls no punches. And that’s the way it needs to be, not only on the show, but in life. Praise means nothing unless it comes from a source that would be just as ready to dole out condemnation if you deserved it.

I like the show best in the earliest stages when you see the judges reacting to auditions off the street, where there is no guarantee at all of any talent, only brazenness. What’s so great about it is that Simon can really let it fly: “That was like a scene from The Exorcist!” Well, they asked for it! It is a good counterweight to the syrupy “sensitivity” decorum of the rest of society. The only thing that would make it better is if they added to the panel of judges Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

But something does bug me about American Idol. Not that I want to shoot the messenger. Rather, the show reveals something tragic about Americans (and no doubt others) on a popular level. We all seem to desire the wealth that is celebrity. Notoriety is good enough, as with the damned souls who sign the papers to appear on COPS and Jerry Springer. If you have fans, if people even just whisper when you pass, ah, that’s the life!

As I understand it, the special thing about American Idol is its populist character. It is a talent search that circumvents the usual path to stardom (whatever that is). Just like the political primary system; the candidates used to get picked by the party elite in smoke-filled back rooms, but now the voters decide in a winnowing process. Same with American Idol. There is a hint of the illusion that anyone, Everyman, could win and become a Pop Star.

And this also explains the fanatical devotion viewers seem to have toward their favorite contestant/performer. If it can’t be me, then at least I can identify with one of the finalists and pretend I have a piece of the action. That reminds me of a bit from The Onion in which a woman worried that her cats would suffer anxiety being away from her while she was on vacation. The reporter disdained her worries, noting that cats’ brains are too small to allow for such emotional attachment; they’re just in it for the Friskies, and if a neighbor offers them a better meal ticket, they don’t give you a second meow. Your devotion to any of the candidates, as you hold up that poster, makes about as much difference.

I gather celebrity is not necessarily good for people; look at the people who do have that wealth. It’s like the poor fools who win the lottery and are poor again in a year—they don’t know what to do with it, and they wind up being bad examples to the kids who idolize them. Just last week they arrested some floozy who was an American Idol finalist a year or two ago. She bludgeoned some guy with a glass in a Tampa bar. Some performance.

I just wish, speaking of Heidegger as I did a few paragraphs ago, that we would all seek authenticity, not living vicariously through another, not even emulating a favorite other, but going our own way. But I don’t want to be a high-and-mighty jerk about it. That’s no reason not to tune into a talent show. I also watch 24 and Battlestar Galactica religiously.

So admits Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
May 2007


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